"This is a very painful reality": The "staggering" human and environmental cost of fast fashion

The only thing more miserable than shopping at Forever 21 is being one of the people who makes its clothes

Published June 12, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Go online or, if you're especially brave, to the Macy's in Herald Square, and allow yourself to be amazed at the plethora of great deals on stylish, affordable clothing out there. Try to enjoy it, because you're not going to be able to once you watch "The True Cost," a new documentary from director Andrew Morgan.

The problems Morgan highlights aren't exactly secrets, but they sure are obscured in the brightly lit U.S. shops where it's easy to forget that if a piece of clothing is being treated as disposable, the person who made it probably is, too. The chain of events that ends with an under $10 price tag begins with people like Shima Akhter, who makes less than $3 per day as garment factory worker in Bangladesh and whose efforts to start a union ended, she tells us, when her managers locked the doors and beat her and her fellow workers into submission.

Yeah, it's that kind of movie: It has scenes from the deadly 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse, and spends time with the physically and mentally disabled children poisoned by their polluted environments, and features those godawful YouTube videos of teenagers showing off the swag they bought at H&M. But it's not, Morgan insists, supposed to leave you depressed. "I think we need to love what we wear," he told Salon. And to do so, he added, "we need to get off the treadmill of buying into a bunch of disposable, cheap, throwaway stuff." (We can, however, direct some anger toward the brands peddling these garments: As Morgan told Salon, "the party that holds the most power has somehow positioned themselves to hold the least responsibility" -- and that needs to change.)

Our conversation follows; it has been lightly edited for clarity.

I wanted to start just by asking you to define "fast fashion" a little more clearly for me. Are we only talking about the cheapest brands, or is it more about the general practice of treating clothing as disposable?

I know exactly what you mean -- it’s not a perfect term. I would say what I am alluding to in the film, and what I’m suggesting, is a model of producing clothing that has, in its origins, been based on taking runway looks to the factory and to the storefront in a very rapid, condensed period of time. And accelerating that production model, in almost every case, has gone hand in hand with a lowering of price point and of quality that has, as you said, made clothing come to be seen, and marketed, as an increasingly disposable good.

There’s an interesting dynamic that you highlight in there of the consumer almost being tricked -- feeling rich because they can buy all these things, but not really ending up with what they're being promised.

It’s almost like it’s imitating fashion. It’s almost imitating luxury. It’s giving people a sense that they can afford something that was previously unavailable, and yet it’s not really the thing that it’s posing as. It’s a very cheap knockoff of the thing that it’s looking like. So yeah, I think that’s been at the heart of the allure: "Wow, I can access that. I can access a style level." And what we’ve not considered is that the quality itself is actually quite low, and creating some really problematic consequences.

I want to switch over to talking about the people who are creating the clothing, and about this narrative discussed in the film that sweatshops are good because the alternatives are worse. Based on what you’ve seen, can you describe for me what it looks like when garment workers are fairly treated, and how different that is from the majority of places where they’re working?

I think that it’s a really important point. I think that the age-old argument -- that has truth in it on some level -- is that these jobs, even if they’re horrible, even if factory workers are living in terrible conditions, are better than no job at all. What I’m trying to suggest, and what a growing number of people is trying to say, is: Why is that a zero-sum game? Why is that the best we can do? By doing something incredibly exploitive and saying it’s better than nothing, the opposite that’s not been put on the table is: Why can’t we do something better than that?

Doing something better than that isn’t really rocket science. Some of the stuff that I saw had a lot to do with when workers have a voice, like when there’s actual functioning union representation for a laborer in his factory, you see a much safer environment, you see much more dedicated workforces, you see much stronger commitment to the people that are working there. They’re not treated as disposable; they’re treated as part of the process. And that’s an amazing thing.

In a lot of these sweatshop factory scenarios, these people that are working in these places are not being trained to do anything other than one really small step. So they can sew one piece or one button or one aspect on a garment, and it’s going down the assembly line. As some of these factories are shifting more toward actually making better products, actually making something of a little more quality, there's this really exciting thing happening where you’re seeing the workers actually be trained in much more of a process of what it takes to make a garment. So that idea of, “Well, these jobs lead to better jobs and they grow and evolve,” is dangerous when workers aren't being trained.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Nowhere in the film am I advocating that we need to pull production out of these countries or that we need to take away these jobs. It’s kind of like what [executive producer] Livia Firth says in the CNN clip we used in the film: We have to treat them with dignity. We have to approach this with, “Yes, jobs are good. Yes, economic growth is important,” but fundamentally while also considering what a human life is and respecting that on a really basic level, the same way that we’ve learned to do in other countries like the United States.

The idea of unionizing, especially, is so powerful, but then there's that really shocking scene in the movie that shows just how hard it is for workers to make that happen. Who bears the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that this happens, or just making sure that workers are being treated fairly?

There are a lot of parts of this, and a lot of people have responsibility in this equation. But that being said, the brands have a lot of power in this equation, and there’s just no way you can start to understand this story without understanding very quickly that the party that holds the most power has somehow positioned themselves to hold the least responsibility.

And that is where I think you see the enormous pieces of this fall through the cracks. The brands dominate the conversation from a power standpoint. A company will say, “Well, it’s up to the government of these countries to set the rules.” That’s incredibly disingenuous because you could talk to anyone in these countries, and everyone knows that these governments will bend over backward to do anything that these brands are asking of them. A country like Cambodia, the garment sector is 80 percent of their export GDP, and out of that 80 percent, there are a couple brands in particular that take up 70 to 75 percent of that. So they have, in that equation, so much power, and that power is not being used.

So one of the things that we’re looking at, advocating for, through the film is this notion that you can make clothing in thousands of factories in the poorest parts of the world and not own the factories and not employ the people and act like you’re not responsible when something goes wrong, act like you’re not aware when people aren’t paid a living wage. That just fundamentally has to change. There has to be more commitment from these brands to make long-term relationships with these factories, actually take responsibility, and actually be linked to them, for good and bad. When a brand is linked to a factory, then they care. They don’t want a fire to break out in the factory. It’s dangerous when there’s no connection, and that’s when you feel like no one’s really holding responsibility.

There was a big development this week that charges were brought against the people directly responsible for the Bangladesh garment factory disaster. The year after that tragedy occurred, the fashion industry ended up having record sales, but do you it could be something that, a few years out, is going to bring reform to the industry? 

In years past, situations like that, people have gotten completely off the hook. So from a justice standpoint, it’s a really important step. I know from even talking to some of the victims and some of the people advocating for some of the victims’ families, there’s a feeling of justice. A step towards justice, which I think is really important. But some of the stuff I’ve been reading online is saying, like, “Reform has come.” We just all need to be careful in seeing that we aren’t actually addressing the system that’s putting pressure and incentivizing some of the people to do what was done in that factory. None of that has changed since Rana Plaza. We’re still dealing with companies that are working on voluntary codes of conduct. We’re still dealing with brands that refuse to make long-term commitments, and we’re still dealing with, in that scenario, factory workers that have an enormous amount of pressure to cut corners.

Sure, that’s fair. I wanted to ask you a little bit about the environmental impact of the fashion industry. That’s something we hear about less, and there are so many factors that play into that. How did you approach trying to get a grasp on the total impact of the industry?

It was interesting for me because I came into the project more aware of what’s been traditionally called the human cost, or the social justice side of it. I had a lot to learn in regards to the environmental side. I think the scope and the severity of impact was just staggering. I mean, it’s staggering on a level that I, along with a lot of other people, cannot figure out why we don’t consider fashion as a more integral part of conversations around waste issues, climate issues, resource scarcity issues. It just hasn’t had a seat at the table for some of the major global conversations. It’s an industry that -- maybe because it’s so beautiful and fun -- has kind of flown under the radar and remained one of the least regulated industries in the world and remained able to stay outside of some of the things that we see a little more clearly.

And I think one of the most striking things to me. one of the things I’ve realized in the course of making the film, is that “environmental impact” is one of the most abstract phrases that we use. If I’m honest, I had a really hard time connecting my heart to that phrase. And what was stunning and what was personally life-changing to me was to be in places and realize that things that we’ve put in a category of environmental impact -- like a future threat, somewhere, someday, something down the road is going to cause harm -- is actually causing very, very real harm to humans today. What it did for me is it moved them out of being two separate categories and made them one and the same. The whole idea of "true cost" is that what we’re doing on a very economic level, on a very social level, and on a very environmental level, is we really are externalizing and refusing to count the actual costs. And those costs, environmentally just like socially, are being borne by the world’s most vulnerable people. And in places like Kanpur, and places like Punjab, just time and time again, it was just striking me that I live in a place where I don’t have to see the impacts of this. But for these people, this is not an esoteric concept; this is a very painful reality.

As a consumer just watching your film and feeling incredibly guilty, this line struck me: “You don’t have to buy into it.” And my question now is, what are the steps that you take? Is it about only buying certain brands and putting pressure on the big brands that are perpetuating these problems? Or is it just buying less altogether? Where do you start when you’re approaching a problem this big?

It’s a great question. I don’t have the perfect answer and I’m still working through what this means for me and my family and my kids. Our team, this was kind of a new conversation for us over the past couple years in that, as I say in the film, I didn’t come in with any ideas. What’s been a really good place for me to start, though, is that I don’t want anyone seeing the film or reading what you write to love the things they wear any less. I didn’t try to make a film that was demeaning to fashion or the concept of artistry and creativity. I think we need to love what we wear. I think we need to get off the treadmill of buying into a bunch of disposable, cheap, throwaway stuff. And I think for me, as I’ve come to reduce the amount that I’m consuming, it has allowed me the space and the finances to purchasing that I really love, that I’m really going to wear, that I’m going to hold onto for a long time. And that naturally has allowed me to ask that next set of questions: Who made this? And what’s this company doing? How are they set up? I didn’t have space to do that when I was just buying all this cheap disposable stuff. It’s too much. But as I’ve reduced that consumption, it’s moved me to a place of being able to make purchases that I’m really proud of from brands that I really do love, and really be conscious of the story that I’m wearing.

And honestly, that’s one of the things that I want people to take away. I don’t want this to be a big bummer or another downer or, “Ugh, great!” It actually has made my life more meaningful over the past two years to start to be more connected to what I’m buying. That’s actually not an impossible shift for people to make, and for me, it’s been a really fun one. The start, though, is just to realize, “Am I buying into a bunch of cheap, disposable, throwaway stuff that I really don’t love, and could I move away from that and begin a journey towards a place that’s more sustainable?"


By Lindsay Abrams

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Bangladesh Garment Factory Consumerism Fashion Industry Garment Workers Pollution